Life of Trees: A Book Review of The Overstory

Have you ever read a book that speaks directly to the essence of your soul? A book that rips you apart and leaves you wondering how you can continue on with your life in the same way?

The Overstory by Richard Powers did that to me. Maybe it was the peculiar timing of the book in my life, or maybe it was destined, but this novel both wounded and healed me, and perhaps redirected my entire future.

Powerful Prose

Before I read The Overstory, all I knew of its tale was its tree-centric theme; having heard the book mentioned in an interview with Richard Powers entitled There Are Things More Interesting Than People, I knew only that this writer was a poetic romantic of trees, and I was intrigued. Sometimes it takes so little for us to know that a book will be amazing; it’s a sort of intuition, a reader’s sense.

The book is divided into four sections: Roots, Trunk, Crown, and Seeds. The first two sections comprise the bulk of the book, anchoring the story and meticulously establishing the foundation. At first, it seems like it will be a series of short stories about various characters and their individual relationships to trees, such as Nick Hoel and his family’s prized chestnut tree, or Patricia Westerford and her beloved father’s plant projects, like testing if trees absorb soil to grow. However, as the book makes its way into the Trunk section, the characters begin meeting each other, influencing and inspiring one another as their stories join together, sometimes in formidable bonds, and sometimes in subtle yet poignant ways. Throughout Crown and Seeds, the characters branch away or come together over the later decades of their lives, which pass by quickly, and which are nothing compared to the lifetime of a tree.

Noteworthily, Powers’ prose is powerful. He commands his language of trees like a symphonic conductor, such as in the following paragraph, which describes a landscape as seen from the canopy of a redwood tree:

Here and there, solo spires rise above the giants’ chorus. They look like green thunderheads, or rocket plumes. From below, the tallest neighbors read like mid-sized incense cedars. Only now, seventy yards above the ground, can Nicholas gauge the true size of these few old ones, five times larger than the largest whale. Giants march down into the ravine… In the middle distance, the forest broadens into denser, deeper blue. He has read about these trees and their fog. On every side, trees lap at the low, wet sky, the clouds they themselves have helped to seed. Skeins of aerial needles—knobbier and more gnarled, a different thing from the smooth shoots growing at ground level—sip the fogbanks, condensing water vapor and sieving it down the sluices of twigs and branches.

Pages 264-265

His poetic rhythm also often extends to the characters’ dialogue, which at first, I admit, annoyed me; their conversations sometimes felt too fictional and scripted to the beat of a writer’s eloquence, and occasionally characters’ speaking styles or habits paralleled others’. I was prepared to critique Powers about this, until I decided to stop resisting his flowery language. Once I let myself sway with the breeze of his diction, I realized my appreciation for his craft—whether or not a person would actually phrase their sentences a certain way seemed like a silly criticism compared to the larger masterpiece Powers was painting.

Many Goodreads reviews cite Power’s sometimes dense and enthusiastic description of trees to be this book’s weakness, and while the book’s final sections were a bit slower-paced in terms of action, I can’t entirely agree with this. The Overstory is certainly not a book that will speak to everyone, especially those who find nature to be quite dull, but I believe that Powers executed his vision quite appropriately. The book isn’t even dominated by descriptions of forests, dedicating most of its prose on the characters’ lives. While the language may be a bit much for some, I hope it wouldn’t stand in the way of the novel’s true message for most readers.

The plot, as well, is dynamic and brave, extending from the early 20th century into sometime modern and familiar, with most of the plots’ major events occurring in the 90’s. While I was left with a few questions at the conclusion, I felt that the story was told as near-perfect as it could have been.

But the reason this book spoke to me so much was what it implicated for our very real earth.

More Than Just Trees

“It’s a novel about trees,” I respond, when friends ask me what The Overstory is about. “Except, it’s so much more than ‘just trees.’”

Perhaps, more adequately, this book is about forests. For each character, it begins with a single tree, but as each human learns to listen, they tune into the symphony of nature and the community of plants, it becomes obvious that trees are working together, getting at something.

There are no individuals in a forest, no separable events. The bird and the branch it sits on are a joint thing. A third or more of the food a big tree makes may go to feed other organisms. Even different kinds of trees form partnerships. Cut down a birch, and a nearby Douglas-fir may suffer…

In the great forests of the East, oaks and hickories synchronize their nut production to baffle the animals that feed on them. Word goes out, and the trees of a given species—whether they stand in sun or shade, wet or dry—bear heavily or not at all, together, as a community…

Page 218

Trees communicate with one another. Have you ever thought about everything we humans can’t see, that exists? The networks of roots underground, just below our feet, or the scents in the air that mean specific messages for plants, which our noses can’t even detect? For how many centuries have we been slaughtering forests that we don’t even understand? It’s mind-boggling everything we don’t know that we don’t know! Here are some interesting things I learned from this book:

If you make a notch four feet of the ground on a baby tree, where will that notch be in twenty years? The same spot, four feet off the ground.

If you plant a tree in a bathtub of dirt and it grows for a decade, how much dirt will remain in that bathtub? Almost all of the dirt—the tree takes sunlight and water and converts it into substantial growth.

Is it better to leave a forest to grow on its own, or to plant rows of equally spaced trees? Leave a forest to grow on its own—nature knows what it’s doing. Every part of a forest plays its part, and doesn’t often need human assistance.

How much forest is left in the world? So little, and rapidly dwindling…

Most of us, I am guessing, admire trees in our own ways. There’s something about them—tall, wise, rooted yet flexible, always growing, always providing, always watching—that evoke awe. It’d be difficult to find a person who goes on a hike through the woods and at one point doesn’t think, These trees are beautiful. And yet, we disrespect trees all the time. Trees get in our way. Their branches—and sometimes, their whole trunks—can fall and damage our belongings. It’s a pain to navigate a lawn mower around their base. We stumble over their roots which protrude from the ground. They grow wherever they can, and humans have gotten in the habit of just cutting them down.

Perhaps we’ve gotten used to dealing with trees, and perhaps we’ve gotten used to the inescapable fact that we’re just going to have to keep cutting down trees. We need wood, and paper, and so much more that is made from trees, as well as space for new homes and buildings. But as long as we plant some more, it’s not worth worrying about, right?

Centuries-old trees and their grandchildren have been massacred in despicable quantities in the past fifty years alone. The thought of a redwood tree being cut down in its prime, after living through half of modern human history, makes me sick. And the thought of an entire forest of redwoods (and countless other forests) being cut down makes me question my faith in humanity.

Life of Trees

My family tree is a forest; it’s no accident I find myself growing wayward and upward in undulations of cyclical growth. Like nature, I have my summer-fall-winter-springs, sometimes accelerating and other times meandering.

When I was about two years old, my father planted my silver maple siblings in two rows in our backyard, and they’ve spent the past two decades growing up alongside me. My parents’ one acre of yard in rural Ohio felt like the world to my childhood imagination, and I found refuge among these trees, which were in the furthest corner of our yard, removed from my family’s house. Barefoot in the summer, my brother and I ran throughout the yard as children, playing make believe and games with our own rules, climbing trees and using their shade for rest. As an adolescent, the playtime activities fizzled out, but I was still drawn to my trees—they were the ideal place for my solitude, when I wanted to “escape” from my house and my family, too young for adult independence but seeking it in whatever doses I could. Back there, beneath the trees, I read, I drew, I thought, I daydreamed, I photographed. I even imagined myself being married beneath the aisle of trees. I grew and found myself, then grew some more.

My father was—and still is—a woodworker: an engineer with the graph paper and a pencil, a craftsman with a hammer and plank of plywood, an artist with the cherry-stained finish. I don’t think there’s ever been an idea my dad hasn’t been able to create out of wood, and to this day he may be one of the handiest problem-solvers I know. “See a need, fill a need,” he appropriately pulled from Robots, but that mantra speaks to his inventor-like skills.

However, he doesn’t just build cabinets with wood; he studies wood. When my family goes on a hike, he’s our walking tree encyclopedia, and we test him: “Dad, what kind of tree is this? How do you think it grew like that? What about this tree?” He straggles behind, sweeping the earth for nuts and acorns, because whether science or poetry, he’s adept to the cycle of life—he will take these seedlings home to germinate and propagate into our yard’s growing family.

2007 in the silver maple

My mother has a relationship with trees in her own way, in that she traces their metaphorical diverging branches of our family back to the main trunk from which they all dispersed, with such an invigorated passion for genealogy that our ancestors live every day with her. Along with that, she experiences her own spirituality with nature, and tells me that Nature is her church—something which I understand fundamentally. She grew up with an annual pilgrimage to Parker Dam State Park, a Pennsylvanian expanse of trees we still give thanks to every fall, and thus trees have become our family symbol.

It seems obvious, reflecting back: trees are my life. Trees have always been friends to me. Whenever my spirit is troubled, I go to the forest, like a sinner in a holy land begging for forgiveness and peace, which I am always granted with a single breath of its rich, fresh air. I’ve even found myself living in a place nicknamed “Tree City,” for its abundant tree population, something that sold me on Kent State versus Ohio State—no concrete jungle for me, no thanks. (Although even Tree City continues to be “developed,” so who’s to say how many trees will endure this next decade.)

This week, in the silver maple

In the beginning of May, I suffered a mild devastation relating to trees. My apartment’s landlord hired a crew to cut down several trees around our property, due to some garage damage a dead branch caused earlier this year. As the monstrous machinery pulled up to the yard, my agony surged with realization: they were going to cut down the tree in front of my apartment.

I sobbed and sobbed, experiencing one of the worst panic attacks I can recall in my adult life. This tree’s canopy was right outside my upstairs windows, which made the Slanted Spines room feel like a “tree house,” providing privacy, greenery, and entertainment, as I often watched the squirrels and birds that frequented its branches. Having spent the past several months getting to know this tree, I had to watch this apathetic group of men grotesquely saw it apart, limb by limb, then feed its remains into a wood chipper, obliterating my tree friend into a billion sacrilegious pieces. I felt like I was watching a friend being desecrated, totally powerless to do anything but witness and weep.

At the end of May, I began reading The Overstory, and I finished it at the end of last week. If you’ve been even slightly aware of the news, then perhaps you know that there were countless Black Lives Matter protests were breaking out across the globe, bringing awareness to police brutality and racial profiling which leads to the suffering of so many black communities in America (read my last week’s blog post here). Between reading about the heartbreaking affair of deforestation and the systemic injustice black people face (and the counter-opinions from many racist Americans), my sensitive “empathy” muscle was over-worked and distressed. I have always been overtly aware and troubled by humanity’s shortcomings, and I tend to carry these burdens as though they are problems I myself must resolve.

It’s difficult to accept that often, all I can do is what I can do. I can bike, recycle, reuse materials, scale back on needless purchases, use less water, eat vegetarian/vegan, sign petitions, donate to organizations, plant trees and advocate for gardening, and educate others on the importance of all this—I can spend my entire life “doing the right thing,” and yet there are 7 billion (and growing!) other people on this planet, some who do a better job than I do, and others who counter-act every single environmentally-conscious deed.

More than anything, we need to re-evaluate large-scale, structural issues: as a country, we need to drastically decrease or ban plastic and plastic bags. We need greedy corporations to quit making cheap products intended to be replaced rather than repaired. We need to educate people on how to garden so that they can eat from the land—and cheaper, and healthier, too. We need to put more enthusiasm into sustainable energy, sustainable resources, and sustainable daily habits that will give future generations on this planet (and the planet itself!) a fighting chance of even just surviving.

But our capitalist existence always wants more, more, more for easier, easier, easier.

I’m not going to lie—when I read that the best thing we can do for this planet is nothing (read: not exist), this was a tempting dare, especially during this dark week. The final act which I had always been told was at its heart, quite selfish, was now painted as the most selfless thing I could do for nature. It seemed to me a great favor I could do for the trees. Think about it: a human consumes so much food, water, resources, and a human produces so much carbon and waste. By knocking off one person—even though it wouldn’t be much—I could make a difference.

Having staved off these thoughts before, I clambered out of that thought hole and dusted myself off. So if I was going to exist, how was I going to make my existence count? How was I going to pay it back to Mother Nature for expending her resources on my life?

This is the question that has been “haunting” me ever since I graduated college a few years ago. I have a degree in English, but where can I put myself where I’ll both be happy and do good (for myself and others)?

As someone who lives as best I can according to the Buddha dharma, the eightfold path is my guide. The path includes a variety of instructions in order to be our best self, including “Right Action,” “Right Speech,” and “Right Livelihood.” Right Livelihood means that our job must not harm others (including the earth), because everything in this world is connected, whether we realize it or not.

When I used to work at the restaurant, I felt conflicted about whether my “livelihood” was right or not. While we did our best to minimize waste, every restaurant yields a lot of garbage, which is disheartening, even if it’s in the name of “sanitation.” Let’s say a sleeve of to-go cups gets knocked on the ground—throw them away. A plate touches the table and the customer changes their mind about what they ordered—throw the meal away. The soup gets burnt—throw all the soup out. Touch a dirty surface with your gloves—throw the gloves away and change them out. I did what I could to reduce this sort of waste, such as buying reusable water bottles for the staff to use rather than foam cups, but even then, several crew members continued to use the disposable containers. I was constantly nagging people just to change one small habit.

Since the pandemic began spreading, I’ve been without a job. This time has been good for me to read, write, and reflect. But also, now I have the opportunity to do anything with my life, and the options are both too grand and too narrow. I want to work at a job within biking distance, and I don’t want to be another cog in a corporation. I need to make a certain amount of money to meet my rent, but I refuse to work for a business whose principles I fundamentally find problematic.

After reading The Overstory, a moment of clarity washed over me: I need to be working with the earth. How many days have I been stuck inside, wishing to be outside? How many times have I felt peace simply by walking through a forest? How many times have I felt the purest sense of pride from merely gardening or working with the earth?

And then, the tale about the fisherman and the businessman. My retelling goes like this: One day, a businessman on his lunch break approached a fisherman. As he watched the fisherman work, he was impressed. “You’re so good at this!” the businessman said. “You should start a company!” The businessman began explaining how the fisherman could expand business, hire employees, and upscale production. He could be rich! The fisherman asked, “And then what?” “And then you could retire and fish every day!” the businessman replied. “But I do that now,” replied the fisherman.

The point being—just because something is bigger doesn’t mean it’s better. Why would I strive at a fancy job, in order to just retire in the future to do something I could do right now? I’d much rather scale back on my shallow desires and enjoy my work, than work away my life in hopes that I won’t die before I get to retire.

Trees are the Future

There are no humans without trees.

I am continually lost in the spiral of human awfulness, and I am desperately trying to figure out what I can do to help us. But it’s times like today—like earlier, when I met a kindred soul to discuss the community garden—that show me hope. In an era when the world seems like it’s right outside our window (or more accurately, right beneath our screens) it can feel overwhelming and crippling, especially to those of us who are sensitive.

These beautiful trees, these watchmen, these neighbors, these incredible plants, they need our help. Our future is entwined with trees. What happens when we wipe them all out? What hell on earth would that be? Is nothing sacred protected from the all-consuming drive of human greed and destruction?

Change begins in the hearts of individuals, as Pema Chodrin writes in Practicing Peace in Times of War. Change begins with my heart and your heart, and even though our tiny efforts to preserve our planet and her resources seem like so little compared to the grand scale, they are still the right thing to do. Each tiny effort compounds with your neighbor’s tiny efforts, and maybe our future can be green instead of garbage, after all. Here are some things we can do to help:

  • Use reusable bags! Stock up on sturdy bags, and use these in place of plastic or paper bags, especially when shopping.
  • Use reusable beverage containers! When going out, bring a travel mug or washable water bottle with you.
  • Start a garden! Learn a skill, eat more organically, and harvest the earth’s gifts.
  • Bike or walk any time possible!
  • Opt for products you wash rather than dispose of, such as cloth towels instead of paper towels.
  • Start a compost pile!
  • Let your yard grow naturally! Cutting grass is a weird thing that humans started doing. Let trees and plants grow up in your yard, or convert your yard into a garden!
  • Reduce water usage. We don’t hear much about it, but this world is going to run out of water soon, as well.
  • Eat vegetarian or vegan. Meat production on a mass scale is sooo wasteful and harmful to the environment. If you do like meat, buy local!
  • When you go out to eat, don’t order to-go! To go products are often one-time use materials. The restaurant can at least wash ceramic dish ware and reuse. Pro tip: bring Tupperware for leftovers!
  • Drink tap water! Stop buying bottled water! If you prefer, invest in a filtered water pitcher.
  • Buy pre-owned furniture and clothing! Fast fashion is so wasteful for temporary fads. Likewise, why buy a new bookshelf when your neighbor is done with theirs? Sand it and re-finish it!
  • Be creative with empty containers. Used spaghetti sauce jar? Wash it, glue some ribbon on it, and now you have a pen holder!
  • Consider adopting or fostering children, rather than having your own. Do what you can to help contraceptives and birth control methods become more available.
  • Donate to organizations like One Tree Planted, which help to replant trees globally.
  • Research community gardens and environmental organizations within your community, and get involved!

For now, this is how I make my peace. But just like trees, we start small as seeds, sprouting little roots like baby steps, until we find our way above the soil, forever reaching towards the sunlight. Change takes time; it’s slow, meticulous, unnoticeable like the way a tree can go from seedling to sentry without ever indicating more than a subtle change each day, though diligent and unrelenting. Sometimes, when a bad thing comes along and axes all our progress, we wonder, How could we ever rebuild? But a few weeks later, from the stump, we may see new sprouts already beginning. Nature’s created to endure and try again, and so let’s be better, more like our earth, and try to be better, and keep trying, even when we fail. That’s all we can do.

(P.S. I gave The Overstory 5 stars on Goodreads.)

Read more about trees on Slanted Spines:


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